close
close

annesophiemorel-photographie

Anne Photograp News 2024

12 conference realignment legal lessons as FSU, ACC and Clemson sue
bacul43e

12 conference realignment legal lessons as FSU, ACC and Clemson sue

Although the latest round of conference realignment was getting ugly, at least one major player never thought it would get this bad.

Lawsuits? Over who is in the ACC?

“In the past 25 years, 39 other schools have changed conferences,” attorney Eric Isicoff told the Miami Herald, “and there has never been a lawsuit.”

That was 21 years ago as the Hurricanes prepared to flee the Big East. Since the start of that legal brawl, no fewer than 19 realignment-related lawsuits have followed.

Five are unfolding now: The dueling lawsuits filed by Florida State (in Leon County) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (in North Carolina) against each other; the separate but similar complaints between Clemson and the ACC in both Carolinas; and the Florida Attorney General’s public-records complaint against the ACC.

How and when the ongoing cases will end is unknown. But the Tampa Bay Times reviewed every relevant case from 2002-22 looking for clues, recurring themes, settlement figures and timelines. Here are 12 takeaways:

Expect a settlement

Boston College saved $4 million with a legal win (a rare decision in realignment litigation).
Boston College saved $4 million with a legal win (a rare decision in realignment litigation). ( MARY SCHWALM | AP (2019) )

Every case but one was settled out of court, and that exception comes with a caveat. In 2004, a Massachusetts judge sided with Boston College and against the Big East over its exit fee. But that only ended one part of the complex dispute (see below).

Mediation led to a quick resolution in at least one case: the WAC’s suit against Nevada, Fresno State and the Mountain West over their exit timeline. That’s notable because a Tallahassee judge has ordered mediation between FSU and the ACC.

Dueling lawsuits are common

Maryland and the ACC sued each other before the Terrapins left for the Big Ten.
Maryland and the ACC sued each other before the Terrapins left for the Big Ten. ( PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP (2016) )

There are a few precedents for the parallel litigation playing out between FSU/Clemson and the ACC.

In November 2011, West Virginia filed a home-court suit against the Big East on its way to the Big 12. The Big East sued the school back a few days later in its home court (Rhode Island). In between, the Mountaineers hosted the Big 12 to celebrate their move.

A year later, Maryland and the ACC started suing each other over the Terrapins’ jump to the Big Ten.

The messiest — by far — was the 2003-05 legal brawl as the ACC prepared to raid the Big East. It featured at least four lawsuits in three states (Florida, Connecticut and Massachusetts) involving various combinations of teams staying in the Big East (UConn, Pitt, Rutgers and West Virginia), teams leaving for the ACC (Miami and Boston College) plus both conferences/league administrators. Virginia Tech began one suit as a plaintiff (on the Big East side) but withdrew on the eve of a court date because it, too, was leaving for the ACC. Awkward.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

This could take a while

Litigation involving a Big East exodus began in 2003. UConn president  Philip E. Austion (at podium), athletic director Lew Perkins (left) plus Connecticut Gov.  ohn G. Rowland and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (right) were among the notable names involved.
Litigation involving a Big East exodus began in 2003. UConn president Philip E. Austion (at podium), athletic director Lew Perkins (left) plus Connecticut Gov. ohn G. Rowland and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (right) were among the notable names involved. ( STEVE MILLER | AP (2003) )

The average case (or set of dueling lawsuits) took more than 10 months to resolve. The 2010 WAC-Mountain West suit only lasted a month. It took about three months to settle the Big East lawsuits with West Virginia and Pitt around 2012.

But those cases were relatively easy. The harder ones took at least 15 months. The legal fight over Maryland’s ACC exit began in November 2012 and ended in August 2014. It took 15 months for Rutgers to drop its claim against the Big East/American Athletic Conference. The longest timeline: the 2003-05 Big East brawl involving Miami. It spent 23 months in the courts.

Exits are (at best) delayed, not stopped

The WAC only delayed Fresno State's jump to the Mountain West.
The WAC only delayed Fresno State’s jump to the Mountain West. ( OTTO KITSINGER | AP (2022) )

None of the cases we found prevented a school from changing conferences. The Big East brawl began before the ACC voted to add Miami and Boston College, but the litigation merely complicated and slowed their exits.

The WAC kept Fresno State and Nevada from leaving a year early, but they still left.

On the other side, Pitt paid the Big East an extra $2.5 million to jump a year ahead of schedule. West Virginia got out two years earlier thanks to an $8.5 million settlement payment and $9 million in withheld revenue.

Fights over home-court advantage are routine

Florida State and the ACC are fighting each other in courthouses in Leon County and North Carolina.
Florida State and the ACC are fighting each other in courthouses in Leon County and North Carolina. ( MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times )

FSU and the ACC disagree on whether their dispute belongs in FSU’s home court (Leon County) or the conference’s home court (North Carolina, where the league is based). Several other sets of cases had arguments about where they’d argue. Conferences generally won:

• A Maryland court paused the Terrapins’ suit while the ACC’s North Carolina suit proceeded.

• A federal New Jersey judge moved Rutgers’ complaint against the Big East to the conference’s home state (Rhode Island).

• A Connecticut court ruled that Boston College did enough business in that state to be sued there while leaving the Big East.

The legal arguments echo

West Virginia was considered a corporation when the Mountaineers were leaving the Big East.
West Virginia was considered a corporation when the Mountaineers were leaving the Big East. ( JEFF GENTNER | AP (2008) )

FSU and Clemson both say they can’t be sued outside their home state because of sovereign immunity, and Tallahassee judge has acknowledged “significant questions” about how it should apply. Maryland tried the same argument against the ACC and lost. FSU and Clemson both authorized that 2012 ACC’s suit against the Terrapins, despite potential sovereign immunity claims.

A Rhode Island judge rejected a similar claim by West Virginia. The reasoning: the school acted like a corporation, and sovereign immunity couldn’t deprive a Rhode Island citizen (the Big East) from seeking relief.

Maryland, Nevada and Boston College, like FSU, thought a conference didn’t follow its rules. The Eagles saved $4 million that way when a judge enforced the Big East’s original exit fee ($1 million) instead of the new one ($5 million).

FSU’s litigation echoes Maryland’s claims in other ways — a “draconian” and unenforceable withdrawal fee and “chilling” antitrust policies that hurt the school. A Maryland judge didn’t buy either argument.

FSU has accused the ACC of rushing to the courthouse for a home-court advantage. Pitt and the other Big East holdovers similarly accused Miami of making “an opportunistic bid … to seek refuge in what it perceives to be a more favorable venue.”

The ACC’s best argument is the same the Big East’s commissioner used after West Virginia’s suit: “To put it simply, a contract is a contract.”

Things can get ugly

Rutgers accused Boston College of treason as the Eagles were leaving the Big East.
Rutgers accused Boston College of treason as the Eagles were leaving the Big East. ( NICK WASS | AP (2022) )

West Virginia said the Big East and its “ineffective leadership” meant the league “had denigrated into a non-major football conference whose continued existence is in serious jeopardy.” It sounds like FSU blasting the ACC and its commissioners for leading “the enterprise to its existential brink.”

The 2003-05 Big East brawl was the nastiest. There were allegations of manipulation, backroom deals and a “deliberate scheme to destroy the Big East.” Miami filed a defamation suit against UConn, accusing the school and state attorney general of “fabricating and disseminating” misinformation. Big East schools went out of their way to mention Miami’s probation and Boston College’s gambling scandal. Its commissioner called the impending exits “the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime.”

Rutgers’ athletic director told the Associated Press that Boston College’s actions were “akin to being a traitor” because the school ditched the Big East after promising to strengthen it. Nine years later, the Scarlet Knights sued that same conference, saying it allowed its football competition to “substantially decrease.” Which, coming from Rutgers, is saying a lot.

Could this scheduling wrinkle help the ACC?

Florida State and West Virginia were supposed to play again through a home-and-home series that was part of a settlement in the Big East/ACC legal brawl. It never happened.
Florida State and West Virginia were supposed to play again through a home-and-home series that was part of a settlement in the Big East/ACC legal brawl. It never happened. ( Times (2005) )

Suits by Rutgers, Pitt, West Virginia and the WAC all had concerns in the quality or quantity of scheduling.

The settlement in the Big East/ACC brawl addressed it by adding nine future games between them, including Miami’s 2010 trip to Pitt and an FSU-West Virginia series (that was axed when the Mountaineers left for the Big 12).

Which leads to this idea: Could FSU and Clemson use future games against ACC members as a bargaining chip? Would those games bring enough extra revenue from TV/ticket sales to soften the blow?

One wave of realignment/litigation affects the next

Some of the issues that came up when Maryland left the ACC remain sticking points as FSU considers its future.
Some of the issues that came up when Maryland left the ACC remain sticking points as FSU considers its future. ( STEVEN CANNON | AP (2013) )

In the Big East brawl, the league upped its withdrawal fee from $1 million to $5 million and extended the timeline to 27 months. That’s the same extended timeline Pitt and West Virginia later sued to escape. The Big East then upped its exit fee to $10 million, which Rutgers fought in court.

As Maryland pursued its exit from the ACC, all but two members voted to increase the exit fee from 1.25 times the league’s budget to three times. The two exceptions: Maryland and FSU, which is now challenging that figure.

The figures have exploded

Miami's exit from the Big East is a fraction of what FSU might have to spend to leave the ACC.
Miami’s exit from the Big East is a fraction of what FSU might have to spend to leave the ACC. ( MONICA HERNDON | Times (2017) )

Miami owed $1 million to flee the Big East. A decade later, Rutgers agreed to spend $11.5 million to get out of the Big East’s successor, the American. The maximum demand we saw came from Maryland: $156.8 million from the ACC. Instead, the Terrapins let the ACC withhold $31.4 million from the school.

Even adjusting that figure for inflation ($41.2 million), it’s nothing compared to the ongoing suits. The exit fee alone is about $130 million, and FSU’s attorneys have pegged the total cost (including the potential loss of TV revenue) at more than $500 million.

The existential threat is real

The loss of Fresno State and Nevada helped kill off WAC football.
The loss of Fresno State and Nevada helped kill off WAC football. ( GARY KAZANJIAN | AP (2023) )

The litigious realignment wave that swept West Virginia, Pitt and Rutgers out of the Big East split the league into a basketball conference (which kept the Big East name) and the American (which effectively lost its status as a power conference).

The WAC feared “irreparable injury to the national stature of the conference” if Fresno State and Nevada left before the summer of 2012. By the time that date arrived, Hawaii was gone, too, and five others were on their way out. The WAC played its final Football Bowl Subdivision season that fall.

Schools’ fears are also real. Virginia Tech’s president said the Hokies had to join the ACC because the “uncertainty of the future of the Big East” was hurting recruiting and the idea of multimillion-dollar deficits would create brutal financial choices.

The names are prominent

Before Charlie Crist was Florida's governor, he backed Miami as the state's attorney general in the Big East brawl.
Before Charlie Crist was Florida’s governor, he backed Miami as the state’s attorney general in the Big East brawl. ( DIRK SHADD | Times (2022) )

Political involvement is common, beyond Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s suit. The Big East brawl featured Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist (a future governor) backing Miami and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (now a U.S. Senator) leading the case for UConn as Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (also a U.S. Senator) pushed for mediation.

Two other names of note: James Clements was West Virginia’s president during the Mountaineers-Big East spat. He’s in a similar situation now as Clemson’s president. Tim Pernetti was Rutgers’ athletic director when the school sued the Big East. Big East football morphed into the American, whose incoming commissioner is … Tim Pernetti.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.